Anglo maniac, myopic, courteous, elusive, dressed in black, reticent and familiar, the cosmopolitan who preaches nationalism, the solemn researcher of useless things, the humorist who never smiles and make our blood run cold, the inventor of other poets and self-destroyer, the author of paradoxes clear as water, dizzying: to pretend is to know oneself, the mysterious one who does not cultivate mystery of the Portuguese midday – who is Pessoa? (Octávio Paz)
Fernando Pessoa, one of the most original poets of European modernism, was born in Lisbon on the 13 th June 1888. Pessoa’s formal education was British. In 1905 he left for South Africa with his mother and stepfather who had been appointed Portuguese Consul in Durban. Having spent his formative years in South Africa, his first poems were, naturally, written in English. Only upon his return to Portugal and then not immediately, did he begin writing in Portuguese.
Pessoa returned to Lisbon at age 17 expecting to continue his studies. He never did. A few mouths after registering at university he gave up studying and engaged in activities related to publishing and handling foreign correspondence for various commercial firms on the city. Fernando Pessoa’s life and work are intimately connected with Lisbon, its streets and cafés but, it was in Porto that he began his literary activity in Portuguese through his collaboration with the literary magazine Águia and the Movimento da Renascença Portuguesa (Portuguese Renascence Movement).
Writing in Portuguese meant the return to his motherland, after living under the influence of “a great European culture”, to discover that “all the great cities lived within him”. It was this interior life so richly complex that gave birth to Pessoa’s heteronyms. As a child, he addressed letters to himself that he described to an imaginary friend identified as “Le Chevalier de Pas”. Towards the end of his life he wrote to himself: Today I have no personality: all that is human I have divided among the various authors of whose work I have been the executant. I am today the point of reunion of a small humanity, which is only mine.
Fernando Pessoa died in 1935 and, lying in his hospital bed, again in English, he wrote: “I know not what tomorrow will bring”. The future brought him the recognition he did not have outside literary circles during his lifetime. For the future, Pessoa left us the now famous wooden trunk, repository of his literary legacy, filled to the rim with more than 25.000 originals, from poetry and drama to prose texts on philosophy, politics, religion, sociology, occultism, novels and detective stories. Undoubtedly, a small part of a life of restlessness and disquiet among the “small humanity which was only his”, in a quest of discovery of himself and of the world around him.